Thursday, 29 December 2016

(Bad) Neighbors 2: Sorority Rising review

I missed it in theatres, but here is my review of the sequel to 2014's Neighbors (or Bad Neighbours, as it was called overseas).

Mac and Kelly Radner (Seth Rogen and Rose Byrne), our heroes from the previous movie are expecting another baby. Realising they no longer have the space, they have bought a new house. However, their current residence is in escrow so they have to stay in it for 30 days. And then the house next door gets some new tenants...

Neighbours 2 might not be as funny as the first one, but what this one does is turn what could have been a re-heated premise into something far richer than you would expect. Like the previous film, Neighbours 2 takes time to develop its antagonists, and while the gender switch could have been a gimmick, it makes for some more pointed commentary about double standards (in both the greek system and comedy).

Within the first few minutes of our introduction to our sorority sisters (Chloe Grace Moretz, Dope MVP Kiersey Clemons and Jonah Hill's sister Beanie Feldstein), the film quickly establishes their dilemma: thrown together by a particularly skeevy frat party (lit and shot like a Dario Argento movie) they decide to make their own sorority outside the system and the patriarchal power dynamics of the campus 'sisterhood'.

No spoilers, but there are some really great jokes, and the movie deserves kudos for not replaying the old hits. Sorry to disappoint all you NCIS: LA/Deep Blue Sea fans, but LL Cool J's scene is not in the movie. It's better to go in clean -- the trailers don't spoil the best jokes.

Performances across the board are terrific: Rogen and Byrne remain relatable and likeable, Zac Efron finds new layers within his muscled douchebag -- and gets most of the best laughs -- and the 'Sisters' are more than worthy substitutes for the last films' 'bros'. Moretz is a strong leader of the pack, and receives great support from Clemons (please give her some leads) and Feldstein (her too). It's a strong movie that manages to balance its mutual antagonists without implying demonising one or the other -- it's one of the movie's strengths.

Enough rambling from me. (Bad) Neighbo(u)rs 2 has the second best use of the Beastie Boys' song 'Sabotage' in a movie this year, and definitely worth a watch.

Monday, 26 December 2016

24K Magic review

Bruno Mars' new album is a love letter to the RnB of the eighties and early nineties, and one of the most enjoyable records of 2016.

Opening with the title track, Mars immediately gets you in the mood with a vocoder that evokes the electro-funk of Zapp & Roger. While the song features a sound clearly evocative of mid-eighties RnB (plenty of synth piano, drum machines and touches of vocoder), it never feels like an empty homage. The beat is tight, but it is not as repetitive as last year's "Uptown Funk", and it still feels like a Bruno Mars joint.

Built from similar components, "Chunky" is even better. A tight, strutting dance number with some nice touches of female backing vocals, it illustrates just how well Mars and his collaborators understand the music they are paying homage to. While there are synthetic instruments, they do not flood the entire song -- there is a use of space here that allows Mars' vocals to come through, and the listener to settle into the groove.

"Perm" is a James Brown-style funk track, with Mars doing a pretty good approximation of Brown's voice. There's not much more to it than that, but it's a fun song.

"That's What I Like" feels more like a ballad from the nineties. I
t's a decent album track but nothing that special.

On "Versace on the Floor", the nineties feeling is more pronounced. This is Mars' attempt at an anthem ballad ala Boys II Men. It might not be as instantly catchy as as their hits, but it's a solid song that could have used a little more personality. Mars re-creates the feel of the quartet by multi-tracking his vocals (at least, that's what it sounds like), so the effect comes off a little cold.

"Straight Up & Down" is another solid album track, with some good backing vocals and finger snaps. It's another "That's What I Like" in that it's decent filler.

Concluding with a sexy(?) celebrity cameo, "Calling All My Lovelies" is a great slow jam about a guy calling everyone in his black book after his favourite squeeze cuts him off, but getting no responses. It's a neat bit of satire, re-casting the typical soul lover-man as a gormless moron.

"Finesse" is Mars' new jack swing song, and it's one of the best tracks on the album. Featuring the same tinny production as a Teddy Riley track from the early 90s (e.g. Guy or Blackstreet), it boasts a great vocal from Mars and is extremely catchy -- which is the whole point really. I'm not a big fan of Riley, but Mars and co. manage to re-create the vibe minus Riley's slightly weedy sound (I'm more of a Jimmy Jam-Terry Lewis fan).

"Too Good to Say Goodbye" is a ballad co-written by Babyface, one of the key figures of the era Mars is trying to evoke. It's a bit too pungent for my taste -- I tend to run hot and cold on syrupy ballads from this era, and this one is a bit too close to those for me to really enjoy it. However, it is a good finale to the whole project.

Ultimately, 24K Magic is a really good pop record that manages to balance Mars' own style with being a time capsule of a specific era. If one goes from Track 1 to 9, it feels like aural journey from the sounds of the mid-eighties to the mid-nineties. Either way you cut it, it's a great soundtrack for the summer. 

Sunday, 25 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Wait Until Dark (Terence Young, 1967)

I've been a fan of Audrey Hepburn since I was a young 'un, and this is one of her best showcases. It helps that it is also one of the least 'Audrey Hepburn' movies she ever made. A cold, brutal thriller with a pitch black sense of humour, Wait Until Dark remains a terrific chiller nearly 60 years after its release.

Based on the play by Frederick Knott (Dial M for Murder), Wait Until Dark tells the story of Suzy Hendricks (Hepburn). Recently blinded, she is trying to come to grips with her new life. Living in a basement apartment with her husband, she spends her days navigating the claustrophobic confines of her home or at classes.

Little does she know that when her husband leaves for work, a trio of ruthless crooks are waiting to infiltrate their apartment to locate a consignment of heroin her hubby unknowingly brought into the country, concealed in a child's doll.

Slowly realising that the sudden stream of visitors are up to no good, Suzy has to figure out a way to defeat these evil men before they kill her.

Nowadays, Alan Arkin is mostly known for his work in comedies. In Wait Until Dark, he dials it all back to play 'Harry Roat Jr', the mysterious psychopath who sees nothing wrong with tormenting, blackmailing or killing anyone who gets in his way.

His vicious, mocking performance is the perfect complement to Hepburn -- he offsets the easy comfort of the veteran star's presence, turning what could have been a gimmicky thriller into something more unpredictable and unsettling. 

Playing Roat's flunkies, Richard Crenna (Rambo, Body Heat) and Jack Weston are ultimately just as helpless as Suzy. Forced to act as Roat's accomplices, they quickly grasp just how much trouble they are in, and their uneasy alliance with Roat provides an extra layer of tension to an already disturbing story.

While the cast are uniformly terrific, Hepburn is the heart of the movie. Having her in the lead works, not just in terms of audience identification, but her star persona is also a terrific misdirect. The audience goes into the movie with a certain series of expectations about her character -- innocent, child-like, maybe a bit lacking in agency -- and the filmmakers play on them with an exquisitely cruel touch.

Hepburn and Suzy are trapped in a movie they are not built for, and so watching the character struggle comes with an added meta-textual punch.

Wait Until Dark was directed by Bond alum Terence Young. A fine, underrated director, he brings a palatable sense of claustrophobia and danger to the film that prevents it from feeling as stage-bound as Hitchcock's adaptation of Knott's previous stage thriller Dial M for Murder.

A coarser, more visceral filmmaker than Hitch, Young creates a movie that feels far more modern than its pedigree would suggest. Once the cast is whittled down to Roat and Suzy, the movie suddenly feels extremely unsafe.

As heroine and villain scrabble around the darkened apartment, the movie begins to feel like the meeting point between the Gaslight-style thrillers of Old Hollywood, in which female stars were menaced by unseen intruders, and the more explicit thrillers and horror films of New Hollywood.

The last 20 minutes of Wait Until Dark is a masterpiece of escalating tension and false flags. Every time it feels like the story is heading into the home stretch, another obstacle lurches into view. It is excruciating.

While this year's Don't Breathe flipped the premise on its head, it cannot match the slowly escalating dread of Wait Until Dark. Featuring a great story, superb direction and a cast at the top of their game, it is an old-school thrill ride that never feels old school. Watch it with the lights out.

Friday, 23 December 2016

If you liked Bruno Mars' 24K Magic... might want to check out these artists.

The Gap Band

A big influence on '2015's Uptown Funk', the Gap Band were one of the biggest funk bands of the late 70s and early 80s. If you've been to a bar or listened to an oldies station in the last 30 years, you'll be free with at least some of their hits. 'Burn Rubber (Why You Wanna Hurt Me)', 'You Dropped a Bomb on Me' and 'Outstanding' are great, timeless tracks that remain highly influential on music today.

The S.O.S Band

When you start looking at 80s RnB, you're going to be spending a lot of time in the company of uber-producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. Members of the Prince-backed band The Time, they were fired from the band and became producers. The S.O.S. Band were their first big credit, producing their album On The Rise, and their first major hit 'Just Be Good To Me'.

Alexander O'Neal

A former bandmate of Jam and Lewis, O'Neal achieved a few chart hits, but never really found success in his homeland. His mid-80s hits 'What's Missing', 'Criticise', and 'Fake', along with his duets with Cherrelle, remain terrific examples of late 80s RnB.  Before Janet Jackson, O'Neal was the major beneficiary of Jam and Lewis's talents, and his 80s albums are as much a testament to their abilities as they are of O'Neal's great pipes. 

Janet Jackson

The pearl in the Jam-Lewis crown, the star-producers hit their stride with the Jackson sibling, and they have continued to work with her since 1986's Control. Name a song you like, and Jam and Lewis's fingerprints are probably all over it.

Karyn White

White's period of success was relatively brief, but produced some great music that helped to create the genre known as New Jack Swing -- a fusion of RnB with the aggressive textures and beats of hip hop. White had the benefit of great collaborators -- hitmakers Babyface and LA Reid oversaw her debut, while Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis took the reins for its successor, Ritual of Love.

New Edition

One of the great 80s vocal groups, following the release of their blockbuster Heart Break, New Edition fractured into a series of spinoffs -- Bobby Brown (who left before Heart Break was made), Johnny Gill and Ralph Tresvant spun off into successful solo careers, while the remaining members formed a popular trio -- Bill Biv DeVoe. This mini-industry helped to popularise New Jack and lay the groundwork for RnB in the following decade.

Click here for my review of Johnny Gill (1990).

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Run (Geoff Burrowes, 1991)

We all have that one movie that we remember seeing on TV when we were little, and for whatever reason it stuck with you. For me, that movie is Run

Run is a 1991 thriller starring Patrick Dempsey and John Travolta's wife, Kelly Preston.

Dempsey plays law student Charlie Farrow. Charlie is a bit of a wise-ass, who likes gambling and fast cars. Unlike his rich friends, Charlie has to work as a part-time mechanic to keep himself afloat. When his boss offers him $200 (remember, 1991) to deliver a red Porsche to a client in Atlantic City, he jumps at the chance. 

Charlie's weekend adventure soon goes sour. First, the car breaks down and he has to pay for it to be fixed. And then things get even worse.

Charlie winds up at an illegal casino where he ends up in a high stakes poker game against a psycho, Denny Halloran. When Charlie keeps winning, Denny grows exponentially more violent and focused on beating him.

Taking a chance when Denny leaves to get more chips, Charlie tries to make an escape. Denny blocks his exit and attacks him. When Charlie dodges out of his charge, Denny trips, cracks his head on a counter and dies.

It turns out that Denny's father owns the casino, and through bribery and intimidation, the whole town. Soon, Charlie is a wanted man, with Halloran's goons and bent cops after his blood.

Run is not a perfect movie. While he is okay in the lead, Dempsey comes across as too much of a preening jackass to be entirely sympathetic. While the intention is clearly to knock Charlie off his pedestal and make him more humble, the transition is not implemented consistently. There are quite a few moments where the filmmakers forget the character and have Charlie throw out some action movie-style one liners. While there are only a few instances of this, they don't sit well with the movie's tone.

These few digressions aside, the movie is a pretty solid thriller. From the moment Denny dies, to the final showdown with his father, the movie's pace never flags and the set pieces -- while simple -- are well handled. The one dead spot is the relationship with Kelly Preston's character. She plays a world-weary dealer at the casino who witnessed Denny's death and gets roped in to Charlie's dilemma. Dempsey and Preston do not gel, and it is something of a relief that the filmmakers do not try to force a romance between them -- there's an attempt at flirtation, but Dempsey just comes off as a randy teenager hitting on a mature woman with better things to do.

The movie's main problem may be miscasting. While watching this movie I couldn't help imagining a remake of this with Shia LaBeouf circa-Disturbia. Heck, Dempsey now would be a better lead. He just comes off as too young and cocksure to be sympathetic.

In the end, Run is pretty good flick. I beat on him a bit, but Dempsey is fine as long as the filmmakers are not trying to make him likeable. The movie is at its best when it lives up to its title, which it does 75% of the runtime. Worth a look.

Saturday, 17 December 2016

Rogue One review

I used to be a huge Star Wars fan when I was a kid. So big, I burnt out about 15 years ago and haven't gone back. Watching the trailers for this movie made it look interesting, like a sci-fi version of The Dirty Dozen with Ip Man and Darth Vader. Sounds good.

Spoilers to follow.

If you've seen the trailers, you know the deal. Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) is a rogue Imperial science officer who has hidden himself and his family to avoid working for the Empire. At the start of the movie, his boss Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelssohn) finds him and takes him back. In the process, his wife is killed and his daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) runs away.

Years later, Jyn is an Imperial prisoner. She is freed by rebels, who want her to help them locate her father and what he has been working on. Accompanied by a ragtag group of rebel fighters, Jyn and Rebel spy Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) are in a race against time to locate the plans to this super weapon, before the Death Star is operational.

This movie has a weird case of uncanny valley, and I'm not even talking about CG Peter Cushing. The whole movie looks impeccable. Everything looks big and feels tactile, but that feeling dissipates whenever people start talking. It's not that the dialogue is that bad (although whenever anyone starts monologuing, set your eyes to 'roll'), but there is a humanity and empathy lacking from the early part of the movie which makes it hard to get invested.

For the first 40 minutes or so, it is impossible to latch on to anything. Scenes and locations zip by before they have a chance to land. You don't get a bead on the characters for a while, and it makes a good portion of the movie un-involving and dull. And then, as soon as the mission clicks into focus, and the story stops bouncing from place to place, the movie starts to resemble the one we were promised in the trailers.

And by the time the third act begins, with a guerrilla assault on an Imperial archive facility, the movie  revs up. The action works, but more importantly the characters begin to gel -- and all die. I was really worried that they were going to pull a fast one and save (some of) the cast, but no. It's great.

A word about the familiar players. Governor Tarkin returns for a surprisingly meaty role. The motion capture is generally pretty good, but human characters remain the hardest to do -- the focus on his face becomes distracting, especially when he's in scenes with Ben Mendelssohn, a human actor.

Darth Vader's role is small, but pretty effective (apart from the pun. Really?). This may be a result of the decision to shoot digital rather than film, but his mask and uniform do not look real. He looks like a guy in (good) cosplay. That aside, James Earl Jones' vocals are good, and Vader's appearance in the final battle is glorious. Gareth Edwards is terrific at giving icons great showpiece moments (think back to Godzilla), and he pulls out all the stops for Vader's set piece.

Overall, the cast do a decent job, despite the inadequacies of the script, but I doubt whether any of these characters will stick long in the memory. The worst done by in this regard are Jones and Mendelssohn. He's ostensibly the film's villain, but he is often relegated behind the franchises' more iconic characters. Considering he is supposed to be the object of Jyn's vengeance, that does not help the movie dramatically.

But the real black hole is our protagonist. The first act zips by so quickly, we never get a lock on who Jyn is. Jones does what she can, but the script never grounds her as a real person. 

On the bright side, all the supporting Rogues do get a little bit of character. Riz Ahmed is really good as the Imperial defector who helps the team get where they're going, Donnie Yen is fucking awesome as a blind man with unshakable faith and Alan Tudyk steals the show as the movie's resident droid. 

In the end, Rogue One is not as great as its marketing campaign. It's a decent movie, hampered by Gareth Edwards' weakness with characterisation and a terrible opening act. However, the movie does manage to get more exciting as it goes along, and by the time the movie enters the home stretch it's genuinely great. 

Thursday, 15 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Orphan (Jaume Collet-Serra, 2009)

This review contains spoilers. You have been warned.

Orphan is a 2009 horror movie that did idling business on release. It has much to recommend it, including solid performances by leads Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard, and strong direction from genre helmer Jaume Collet-Serra (who made all those post-Taken Liam Neeson movies).

The premise is pretty simple: a couple left grieving after the death of a child go to an orphanage to fill the void in their lives. They wind up adopting a charming Russian orphan, Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), who quickly becomes a part of the family. However, little do they know that there is something wrong with Esther...

The most pleasing thing about Orphan is how unsafe it feels. Most modern day horror feels canned and predictable, but there is an unflinching quality to its darkness which makes Orphan better than its generic parts. The 'evil child' sub-genre has been around for decades, but most of these movies soft-pedal the scares, leaving the movies feeling neutered. Orphan manages to walk the line -- it is unsettling (especially during the final reveal) but it never becomes questionable.

Time for spoilers...

It is revealed that Esther is not a child: she is a 32 year-old woman! Having escaped from a Russian mental institution, Esther has been passing as a little girl, an orphan moving from one unsuspecting family to the next.

In a deranged attempt to find love, she ingratiates herself into established families solely to gain the patriarch's affections. When the father inevitably rejects her, a convenient accident happens to take place and Esther moves onto her next victims...

It's a crazy twist, but one that the filmmakers carry off with panache. Sure, the third act is nothing new -- our heroes creep around a house, trying to avoid a maniac -- but the movie has done such a good job at building the atmosphere and investing in the characters and their mad plight that it doesn't derail it.

A solid genre flick, Orphan is definitely worth a look.

Sunday, 11 December 2016

New podcast discoveries, 2016 edition

High and Mighty

The first big find of the year. Jon Gabrus is an improv comedian with no fame and no shame. Every week he invites a friend and fellow comedian on the show to discuss a topic Jon and the guest are vaguely interested in: from renaissance fairs, to owning dogs, to Taco Bell, to eighties action movies, the breadth of material they cover is impressive. Funny, irreverent and viciously self-deprecating, this one is not for all tastes.  As an inducement to get higher in the iTunes charts, Gabrus has mandated that he will only read five star reviews which roast him. One of the chief joys of the show is listening to Gabrus read these reviews, as his fans take issue with everything from his Long Island accent to his weight and his dead dad. The depths they will fall to in order to get on air is... jaw-dropping.

My Dad Wrote A Porno

HOLY SHIT. I only just heard about this podcast. The premise is exactly what you think it is. Jamie's dad has started a side-career in self-publicised smut, and together with friends Alice and James, he reads his dad's opus, one hilariously inept chapter at a time. Prepare to laugh your head off as our incredulous heroes struggle through incomprehensible bodily positions, pointless scene description and excruciating syntax. The podcast has become a massive hit, with celebrity fans (and guests) including Elijah Wood, Daisy Ridley and Michael Sheen.

Slate's Whistlestop

On a more mature note, this podcast is one that might add something to your day. Hosted by US journalist John Dickerson, this highly entertaining and informative podcast discusses the pivotal moments and scandals of past US presidential elections. Each episode is short and to the point, with Dickerson offering comprehensive (but never confusing) explanations for how specific elections turned out. In light of recent events, it is extremely relevant.

Blacklist Table Reads

The Blacklist is a list of the best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. On this show, a cast of actors and comedians read the best that Hollywood hasn't made. Comedies, action flicks, dramas and sci-fi epics all get a look-in, and you also get interviews with the writers, as well as special episodes focusing on recent (filmed) screenplays, such as Moonlight. Featuring sound effects and music, this show is like a deranged descendant of those old radio shows your granddad listened to. Check it out.

Monday, 5 December 2016

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Equinox (1967)

This movie cost $6,500 and made no impact on release. Why is it worth reviewing?

It started as a student film made by a group of filmmakers who would go on to big careers, namely Dennis Muren, the special effects wizard behind Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park.

The story is simple. A group of teens go into the woods to visit their old professor and find his house destroyed. They soon realise that the old prof had discovered an ancient book which broke the fabric of reality and has thrown them into a bizarre world of monsters and demons. Will our clean-cut heroes get out alive?

This movie is poorly paced, the script is incoherent and the cast are horrible. The premise is vaguely similar to The Evil Dead, except if you replaced the Deadites with stop-motion beasties from a Ray Harryhausen movie.

The special effects are crude but effective. The only problem is the film around these sequences is garbage.

The various creatures are cool -- we get a couple of giants, a flying red demon and a giant Cthulhu-style octopoid. Sadly - due to the budget - these sequences are fairly short, and spaced fairly evenly through the movie.

Aside from these sequences (which you can find online), the movie is a wash. If you can find it, the DVD is worth checking out for the extras about Muren and how they came up with the special effects on a $1.98.

Thursday, 1 December 2016

BAD MOVIE JAMBOREE: Battleship (Peter Berg, 2012)

You know a movie is bad when the DVD has no extras and you have to sit through 10 ads just to get to the menu.

2012 was the year of Taylor Kitsch — only he probably wishes you’d forget it. John Carter and Battleship were infamous for their bloated budgets, mixed (at best) critical reception and box office failure. Sadly neither of these movies is the outright disaster they are made out to be. John Carter is a bland sword and sandal fantasy that cost way too much money and came out about six decades past its use-by date. 

Battleship tells the story of Alex Hopper (Kitsch). He's a loose cannon who is wasting his life away on pranks and drinking, until his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgard) forces him to join him in enlisting in the Navy. Alex is one of those movie loose cannons who are super-talented but can't help getting in their own way. Being an idiot hasn't stopped him from getting a supermodel girlfriend (Brooklyn Decker) and becoming an officer on a ship (I lost interest in the specifics).

Aliens attack and Alex has to grow up fast in order to defeat the aliens and protect his crew. Blah. Blah. Blah. Boom.

The cast do their best. Kitsch is fine but has nothing to do as the hero -- especially considering he is just a collection of military outsider clich├ęs. Decker is not terrible, but she wasn’t cast for her acting. Alexander Skarsgaard cannot hide his accent. 

Rihanna is kind of just there (as Alonso Duralde puts it, “She falls somewhere between Mariah Carey in Glitter, and Mariah Carey in Precious”). Liam Neeson is in it for minutes — probably too busy doing Taken movies. 

What is striking about Battleship is not that it is bad — it’s that it’s not that far from decent. The main flaw is the disjunction between the ridiculous premise and the earnest execution. This movie is working so hard to make us swallow this premise without laughing — and yet for every moment that clicks, another negates it with silliness. Director Peter Berg is a better storyteller than Michael Bay, but suffers from the same obsession with blind worship of images of American military might.

The movie has the same off-putting sense of sincerity and reverence for the military as Michael Bay's Transformers movies. Take that scene from Transformers 3 where Optimus Prime talks to Buzz Aldrin and stretch that awkwardness out for two hours -- that's Battleship. The movie includes a completely tone deaf subplot about a war veteran (played by real-life war veteran and double amputee Gregory D. Gadson) learning to walk on his new prosthesis. The juxtaposition of this real life trauma with CG aliens, swimsuit models, burrito gags and Rihanna is just wrong. 

In the end, Battleship isn’t memorably horrible. It’s just an expensive mediocrity.